Clayton Slack

Portage County's only Medal of Honor winner

Medal of Honor

 

The day is October 8, 1918, and American troops are embroiled in the biggest battle of World War I they have yet encountered--a confrontation in the Dead Man's Hill area of the Meuse-Argonne. A regiment from the 33rd Illinois National Guard is massing on the front line near that Verdun, France hill when a 22-year-old private, a machine-gunner, spots two German soldiers dashing into nearby brush. The young soldier, fearing the enemy brush dodgers might be machine-gunners who could mow down the U.S troops when they reach an open field, quickly report s to his sergeant with his information, only to be told his information would be relayed to headquarters. The young private protests contending something has to or done before the enemy establishes a foothold. And the sergeant replies, "If you're so damn brave, go after them yourself."

The soldier grabs a rifle, and under the cover of artillery, he sneaks up the hill behind the lines, shells falling all around him. At t he top, he sees a 10-man German machine gun nest. "I took a long breath," the soldier later recalled. "Then I jumped up and cried 'Hands up' and ran directly at t hem with my bayonet in position. The men were so surprised, they put up their hands and backed away leaving their guns," sure that young Private Clayton Slack was t he first man of a patrol.

Private Slack captured the 10 Germans and their two heavy machine guns probably saving his regiment from heavy casualties. Among the Germans that Private Slack took prisoner in his one-man siege and marched back behind American lines were a sergeant and a lieutenant. One of the German officers saw the daring single-handed act of Private Slack that day for exactly what it was: an act of bravery and patriotism deserving of the Congressional Medal of Honor, and he nominated Private Slack for the award.

In January, 1919, General John H. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, presented Slack with the medal. Three months earlier. Gen. Pershing had told Slack, "You’ve done more to win the war than I have." And if medals are any measure of how wars are won, indeed Slack did more than one soldier's share of winning World War I. For he not only received the Congressional Medal of Honor, he also received the American Silver Star, the Verdun gold medal, the Bronze Star with four oak-leaf clusters, and the Purple Heart. France presented him wit h the French Medal Militaire corresponding to the Congressional Media of Honor, and two French Croix de Guerre medals with palm leaf. Belgium decorated him with the Belgian Cross of King Leopold. Great Britain cited him with the British Distinguished Service Cross. Italy presented him the Italian Cross. And Montenegran (now Yugoslavia) gave him the Montenegran Bravery Cross.

But it was the Congressional Medal of Honor, this nation's highest military award that was to bring fame, fortune and respect to Private Slack the remainder of his life. For he was, it was reported, the only private to come out of World War I with the Medal of Honor. He was the only machine gunner in the U.S. Army to receive the award during World War L He was certainly the only Wisconsinite to win the Medal of Honor during World War 1. And finally, when he died in 1976 at age 80, he was Wisconsin's oldest Congressional Medal of Honor winner.

Having joined the U.S. Army on September 11, 1917, Private Slack was honorably discharged on August 13, 1919 and returned to Wisconsin where he ran a radio shop and a restaurant for a short time.

In 1924, however, his wartime heroics again took him into the national limelight. A movie came to Wisconsin, and in it, his name was mentioned. "They were exploiting my name," he later explained. "So I thought if they can make money out of it why can't I” He joined the tour promoting the film and in 1925, he went into show business for himself putting the battlefields he knew on stage, carrying films of the war (including a short motion picture taken from a downed German pilot) and the two machine guns he captured, and donning his old Army uniform, prominently displaying his 13 military decorations.

For the next 19 years, billed as The Golden Chevron, he appeared under contract with theatre mogul David Loew in 42 states and appeared in motion pictures including "Four Aces." a U.S. Signal Corps film about World War I, and in "Hell's Holiday," a U.S. film about World War II.

And while Private Slack was earning $33 monthly (with $6.60 deducted for insurance) when he won the Medal of Honor on the battlefield, he was earning $13,200 a month when he was taking the battlefield and medal onstage.

One New York Times columnist raved after Slack's opening performance in New York, "This is more thrilling than anything to come out of Hollywood." A colleague at The Times called Slack "another Lindbergh." And as his show drew rave reviews from metropolitan newspapers across the nation he was awarded "the keys to more cities than I can remember" and dedicated the Peace Bridge linking Buffalo, NY and Canada.

But his most memorable night on the stage, he recalled, came at the Shubert Theatre in New York City in 1930. After the show there, he said, "this fellow came and knocked on my dressing room door. He stuck out his hand and said his name was Heinrich Kuhler," Slack recounted. Kuhler was the sergeant Slack had taken prisoner that day behind the lines. He had come to America after the war and was playing the snare drum in a New Jersey bar. A newspaper advertisement announcing- Slack's appearance had drawn him to the theatre that night.

As his stage career flourished, however, Private Slack was also busy getting established in yet another business - resorts. Having married Marcella L. Powell on May 1, 1928, Private Slack and his wife moved to Lake Owen. Cable, in 1934 where they built and operated Beautyrest Resort and in 1947 they moved to the Round Lake area near Hayward and built a second resort. Slack's Edgewater Breach Resort, a business they operated until his retirement and the takeover of the business by his son, Clayton Slack Jr.

Slack tombstone

In the course of his travels Private Slack met six presidents the last of whom was President John F. Kennedy who hosted a reunion at the White House on May 2, 1963 for all medal winners, in observance of the 100th anniversary of the first Medal of Honor presentation made by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.

Meanwhile, Private Slack was an active member of the national Medal of Honor association in the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Veterans of World War I, attending conventions with his wife, year after year across the nation.

Born on February 23, 1896 in Meehan Station west of Plover, one of a family of 14 children whose father was a gunsighter in an ammunitions factory. Private Slack died of a heart attack in New Berlin March 1. 1976. Funeral services were held at First Congregational Church in Hayward on March 5, and his body was then removed to Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. for military rites and burial.

Many years before his death, General Pershing personally selected the location for his own grave - Section 34 at Arlington National Cemetery stating that he desired his remains might be at rest near his brave comrades who served with him during the World War (1917-18).

Today, not far from the white marble government headstone marking the grave of the famed commander is a similar stone marking the grave of a man on who had once received a Congressional Medal of Honor. Private Clayton Slack, Section 34.

 

     

See our Permissions page for use and copyright information.